How to keep your dog healthy this winter
Winter walks can be some of the most memorable with your dogs with a low sun and crisp, frosty footsteps.
The the hot dry summer this year we actually need a winter of wellies and deep mud, though I remain hopeful of at least a little snow! This blog gives you some insight into the challenges your dog faces getting around in the winter. I talk about how your dog moves about, how you can spot an injury early and the things you can do to reduce the injury risk.
Walking your dog at this time of year often means that you are either stuck walking around the streets, or you risk mud and standing water or the other extreme, negotiating rock hard, icy and uneven fields and woodlands. To add to the challenge you are often walking in miserable weather condition and poor light.
Have you noticed that when you walk on icy surfaces you take smaller step and your back and upper body stiffen up? Walking through deep, sticky mud is tiring work and moving over hard uneven ground can make your feet and ankles ache as you negotiate the difficult surfaces. If you slip you can feel your lower back tighten and you involuntarily swing your arms to keep you upright. If your muscles are cold when this happens you are more likely to damage the muscles, ligaments and tendons of the body.
These are obvious seasonal hazards for us but they also pose a risk to your four legged companions. Despite the tricky ground conditions our dogs seem to love 'hooning' around at this time of year. The wind, rain and, if we get any, snow seem to send them mad. They are often slipping and sliding as they change direction or speed.
Our dogs have to work hard to release their feet from cold, sticky mud. They take shorter strides when surfaces are slippery and it can take longer for their muscles to warm up too. In addition, our dogs will be using their feet and claws to gain purchase on the ground. Their toes, feet, wrists and hocks can ache and all these little issues can look a lot like your dog has arthritis or is getting old as they visibly slow down.
Regularly checking and comparing how your dog sits, stands and moves can be incredibly useful in identifying such injuries.
Did you know?
- You dog should steer and break with the front legs and generate the power from the back.
- Around 60% of their body weight is carried by their front legs
- Their centre of gravity is usually just behind the shoulders.
This means that your dog can be very stable whilst steering and changing speed. This can be extremely useful when they are chasing their prey (or friends). But when the ground is slippery, sticky or solidly uneven it significantly increases the risk of them slipping, with their legs sliding out and away from their body. You have probably seen your dog slip already on a hard floor at home or when out and running on wet grass.
Your dog moves with less contact with the ground than we do.
Look at your dogs feet. See the claws and their toes. Look at the large pad behind the toes. Now look at your own hands and feet. Hopefully you can see the similarities. Your dog is a "digitgrade" animal which means that they walk on their toes and finger tips.
Imagine walking about just using your toes. Now, imagine 'hooning' around on slippery ground with just your toes and fingertips making contact with the ground.
This dog is slipping on an icy pavement. Look at; the position of his legs, the angle of his joints, how he is trying to use his claws to get a purchase.
His body is working hard to stay upright. His joints are abnormally stressed, putting strain on his ligaments and tendons. His centre of gravity is moving away from him.
If you were slipping like this it would likely hurt. Your dog is no different. Rest may be sufficient to recover from this. But if I were to fall after a slip like this then my back, inner thighs and chest muscles would hurt for days afterwards. In addition, whenever I come across a similar situation I will tense up sooner and possibly cause more significant injury next time.
The likelihood is that with rest this dog will appear ‘better’ but regular slips mean I regularly see injuries to the:
Superficial Pectorals which are across the upper chest of your dog and play an important role in keeping the front legs under the body when on the move
The Pectineous which is a small muscle located at the inner thigh which is essential for keeping the hind legs under the body
The back (Epaxials) muscles
The toes, wrists and hocks with those joints feeling restricted and with lower range of motion than would be expected.
So how can you tell if your dog has hurt themselves?
Intermittent lameness seen as a clear limp or an odd head movement on the move
Skin twitching, particularly in the back, when stretching or being touched
Slow on a walk and perhaps also sniffing more
Difficulty getting into the car or up stairs
Wanting to be alone and being less playful
Sensitive or reactive to touch or grooming
Stiffness after exercise and / or after rest
Changes in the position your dog takes to toilet, eat or drink
Changes in performance of trained tasks (working working or sporting dogs).
What can owners do to reduce the risk of injury this winter?
Tackle uneven or slippery surfaces slowly and mindfully. In this I mean encourage your dog to look where they are going (and not at you, your treat pocket or any toy you might be carrying).
Prevent your dog from going from sound asleep in bed to 'hooning' about outside by trying to build some warm up time into your routine, for instance by doing some basic obedience indoors first or walking on lead before letting them run free.
Walking on gritted surfaces may overcome the risk of slipping but grit can be toxic and abrasive to your dog. Make sure you wash their feet and dry them well when you get home. This is an excellent time to check your dogs toes for any soreness too.
I am not a fan of ball throwers as the repetitive action of retrieving the ball can cause pain and soft tissue damage and can become extremely addictive to your dog. Want to know more? I have a blog dedicated to ball throwers.
When the ground is uneven or slippery a ball thrower is best avoided altogether. You can always roll the ball into undergrowth and encourage your dog to find it. This can be so much more rewarding and safer for your dog.
Regular Clinical Massage can identify and correct many small niggles before they become an issue for your dog. The longer a dog is carrying a small injury, for instance a Pectineous muscle that has become too tight, the greater to risk of more serious injury such as a muscle tear (strain) or compensation elsewhere such as the dog putting more weight through the shoulders to give the sore muscle a break. Massage addresses the causes of the problem, getting your dog back to normal sooner.